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Reading 30 books in 30 days taught me I know nothing about espionage

For most of my post-graduate life, I’ve taken a class each semester on a subject that piqued my curiosity. Abnormal Psychology? Check. Forensic Anthropology? Check. Homicide Investigation? Jane Austen? Linen Weaving? The History of Afghanistan? Fire Science? The Communication Techniques of Plants? Sure!

During Covid, my ability to take classes at my local universities has been savagely curtailed and so, to avoid stagnation, I’ve been giving myself monthly reading topics. In August, I read about the principles of forest education for young children. In September, the Dutch Golden Age artists. This October, I decided to read about espionage. I thought it might be fun to share these deep dives with other people who like to read, and make some recommendations regarding my favorite picks.

To put this all in context, I’ve read at least one book a day for the past 35 years.

I made some rules: Each month, I’d ask artists and scientists and (yes) friends to recommend books pertinent to the topic. Maybe readers would write in with their own suggestions. I’d order the books, borrow them, or track them down online. Then, I’d read them, one after the other. To put this all in context, I’ve read at least one book a day for the past 35 years. Sometimes, a book is such a doorstop (2,000 pages!) that it takes me longer than a day, but the general principal in a book a day.

Especially now, in the age of Covid, I feel the need for targeted reading. My legs may grow flabby due to lack of exercise, my belly may droop, but my mind, never.

Why I’m Reading About Espionage

Standing in Heathrow airport terminal as a young student in 1981, I looked around for the group with which I was supposed to travel to the Soviet Union. There were plenty of long lines, lots of students, but none that looked distinctly Jewish. In those pre-rolling suitcase days, my bag felt like it weighed a ton, packed as it was with matzos, prayer books, two pairs of tefillin, dry salamis and four pairs of Levi’s that I would never wear. Eventually, my group showed up, we passed through the strict security and boarded a plane for Moscow.

I was excited and (mostly) terrified. Brought up to be a good girl, a rule follower, I was sweating, twitchy, and couldn’t remember even one of the addresses we had been told to memorize. I didn’t talk to anyone on the plane and, after arriving in Moscow, I avoided speaking in public because we’d been told that every room in the hotel was bugged (they were), and we would always be followed by the KGB (we were).

Goldie Goldbloom

Through a variety of subterfuges, we successfully passed the goods to the Refuseniks and then it came time to leave. Most of the students filed past security without a hitch. I was one of the last people in line. I was tired, ready to go back to Finland where I was studying Russian language and literature. Handing my passport and ticket over to the agent, I kicked my suitcase forward and thought longingly of Karelian piirakkoita, a Finnish rye pastry filled with rice pudding. I didn’t wait to retrieve my passport before taking a few more steps.

“Stop,” the agent said. “You don’t have a ticket.”

40 years ago, plane tickets were cardboard and housed in a narrow paper folder. When I had flown to Moscow, the Heathrow gate agent should have torn out the portion for London to Moscow, and left the portion showing Moscow to London. Instead, he’d torn out the Moscow to London portion.

Every story I’d ever heard about how dangerous the Soviet Union could be rushed into my head. I started to cry

“How did you get here?” the agent asked me, all trace of a smile gone. “How did you sneak into the Soviet Union?” He pointed to the remaining ticket: Heathrow to Moscow. A white light flashed overhead and suddenly there were a lot of burly women in uniforms and baggy beige tights who grabbed me and pulled me out of the line. I called out to the other students but nobody looked in my direction. Each time I got my feet underneath me and tried to walk normally, the women jerked me sideways. We were fast approaching a ceilingless room made of ten foot frosted glass panels. Dangling high above the room was a huge round lens, like an eye.

Two of the women dumped the contents of my suitcase onto a steel table and began tearing out the lining. A third one tugged at my clothing and indicated that I needed to remove it. My heart pounded. Every story I’d ever heard about how dangerous the Soviet Union could be rushed into my head. I started to cry.

“The agent in Heathrow tore out the wrong ticket!” I blubbered. I wasn’t speaking in my rudimentary Russian anymore. “I’m just a kid!”

“You’re a spy,” said one of the women poking my suitcase with what looked like knitting needles.

“You’re going to jail,” said the other.

And then they all laughed.

The Books That Started It All

One of the most accessible books on my list was “The Moscow Rules,” by Jonna and Tony Mendez. Tony was a technical operations officer for the CIA and was the man in charge of the exfiltration of six American diplomats from Iran in 1980, an operation loosely adapted in the film “Argo.”

“Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is an enemy action.”

The set of rules that came to define clandestine operations in Moscow during the Cold War include this one, which refers to noticing a particular stranger on a surveillance walk: “Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is an enemy action.” It reminded me of the way the KGB men had trailed us through the streets of Moscow, bored, not even caring to hide themselves. We’d seen them everywhere, and come to assume that we were meant to see them, meant to be afraid.

Another thing I made note of as I read “To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence” was that if a large number of spies from Russia is being caught and prosecuted in the United States, it sometimes means that there is a high level asset in place in Russia who is providing names and quality intelligence.

I was curious, when I was about halfway through my month of espionage-related reading, just how many people have been caught spying for Russia in the last two years. The answer: Besides the 60 diplomatic and intelligence officers Donald Trump expelled following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March 2018, not many that were publicly announced. One of the most recent was former Army Green Beret, Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins. (Even more recently, news has been released about a devastating and massive Russian-sponsored cyber-attack by the Solar Winds group on American security agencies, amongst many other national and international targets).

However, while reviewing the arrests of the Russians, I came across something startling that changed the course of my reading. From 2018 through 2020, there have been a huge number of arrests of Chinese spies. Once might be an accident, twice might be a coincidence, but it seems that over 300 separate incidents is likely to be an enemy action.

Why People Spy

According to Nicholas Eftimiades in his book, “Chinese Espionage: Operations and Tactics,” Article 7 of China’s National Intelligence Law (2017) states that “any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work.” China’s citizens, at home and abroad, are required to assist in intelligence collection, and if they refuse, they and their families are subject to severe consequences. For the first time in modern history, espionage has not been tasked to a special group of highly trained operatives, but instead, it has been entrusted to the whole of Chinese society.

Imagine if every American student who took a year abroad was asked to send information to the CIA about whatever they’d decided to study: people, fashion, literature, politics, but also physics, aeronautics and biochemistry.

The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) deploys ordinary civilians to appropriate American technology, information and inventions, which are then used to enrich China. Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, said in a July 2020 speech at the Hudson Institute that nearly half of all counterintelligence cases in the United States are focused on China’s alleged theft of US information, more than 2,500 cases, and that a new case involving China is opened every ten hours. China spent over two trillion dollars between 2008 and 2020 in its efforts to recruit scientists in the United States and steal American intellectual property. That investment has paid off for the Chinese: For a relatively low investment, they have vastly enriched their scientific, military and industrial sectors.

Individuals apprehended for spying for the Chinese come from a broad range of fields, not just from intelligence agencies, but also from businesses, research labs and academia. Some assets are recruited the old-fashioned way, in person, while many others are recruited online, often through LinkedIn or other social media sites. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has billions of dollars to offer individuals who are willing to divulge proprietary trade secrets or research.

People spy for a lot of reasons. There’s a Cold War acronym for the motivations: MICE. Money, Ideology, Compromise(Blackmail), and Ego, with money being by far the most common motivating factor. More recently, MICE has been supplanted with RASCLS, an acronym coined by psychologist Dr Robert Cialdini which stands for Reciprocation, Authority, Scarcity, Commitment/Consistency, Liking, and Social Proof.

Though I am unable to say with any degree of certainty what causes people to spy for China, the many indictments I reviewed have some things in common. Former CIA case officer and Army Veteran Jerry Chun Shing Lee was arrested in January 2018, and charged with giving information to Chinese agents, including the real names and locations of assets in China. He possibly caused the death of dozens. He received over $840,000 from his Chinese masters and was sentenced to 19 years in prison. Using the old acronym, MICE, it seems clear that a significant part of Lee’s motivation must have been money.

Former DIA case officer and Army veteran, Ron Rockwell Hansen, was arrested fleeing to China in June 2018, and was charged with stealing export-controlled encryption software and divulging information about American military intervention plans with China in exchange for up to $800,000. He had reportedly been in deep financial trouble and attempted to pitch himself as a double agent in order to get large cash payments. Hansen was sentenced to ten years in prison as part of a plea deal in which he provided the US government with information about how China targets Americans.

Candace Marie Claiborne, a former office management specialist in the State Department, received $550,000 in cash and gifts in exchange for delivering internal State Department documents to the PRC. Her case is complicated by the fact that her son was the beneficiary of most of the Chinese largesse, and seemingly initiated many of the contacts. Claiborne was sentenced to forty months in prison and community service.

In another case, former DIA intelligence officer and CIA case officer, Chinese linguist Kevin Patrick Mallory was sentenced to twenty years in prison for providing detailed information to his handlers about American operatives who were about to travel to China. At the time he was approached, Mallory was over $200,000 in debt.

I’m not sure why my local bank knows when to send me repeated text messages, reminding me if I’m behind on my credit card bill, but the United States government can’t seem to write a dedicated program to assess intelligence personnel for financial risk. The purchase of a $500,000 home for cash on a $70,000 annual salary shouldn’t take several years to raise a red flag. Given the wide scale monetary, intelligence and information losses espionage causes the United States, paying closer attention to the financial stresses of agents seems worthwhile. One has to wonder if, after the 2017 Equifax cyber-theft of 145 million Americans’ data, digital bells don’t go off in China at the first moment an American intelligence officer misses a credit payment, alerting them to potential weak links.

The Price of Espionage

The closing of the Chinese consulate in Houston in July 2020 yielded a large quantity of classified information about an advanced program of Chinese research theft. The Houston area appears to have been targeted because to the innovative research being done by NASA, the oil and gas industry and the Texas Medical Center. Chinese intellectual property theft is estimated to cost the United States 360 billion dollars a year.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) lists 146 Chinese talent recruitment stations across the United States, many connected with universities. These stations have reportedly contracted with more than 7,000 top STEM researchers. Scientists have been brought under suspicion for transferring intellectual property to mainland China. Recently, Texas A and M University system found over one hundred faculty members who were linked to the Chinese recruitment scheme, of whom only five had reported the connection as is required by law.

American higher education has become a favored target for espionage. Since July 2018, the National Institute for Health (NIH) has raised questions about the behavior of 189 scientists. In 93% of these cases, the scientists under investigation received unreported funding from China.

Dr. Charles Leiber, the Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University and widely regarded as the top chemist in the world, was arrested on January 28, 2020 and charged with making false statements about his connections to China. Court documents state that Dr Leiber had received over fifteen million dollars in grant funding since 2008 from American organizations including the Department of Defense (DOD) and the NIH, to which he was supposed to report conflicts of interest. Neither Harvard nor the United States government knew that Dr Leiber was simultaneously a participant in China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a program to recruit top scientists and researchers to further China’s own scientific and economic development.

Additionally, Dr Leiber was allegedly a “Strategic Scientist” at Wuhan University of Technology and accepted payments of $50,000 a month for three years, which he failed to report to the IRS. In 2013, according to an affidavit outlining the charges against him, he signed an agreement to “carry out advanced research and development of nanowire-based lithium ion batteries with high performance for electric vehicles.” However, Dr Leiber’s Harvard laboratory was far more concerned with the integration of nanowire and biology.. This work included the creation of a flexible nanowire mesh that could be injected into the brains and eyes of animals where it expands and clings to neutrons. This, in order to record the electrical conversations between cells.

Doctors Zhengdong Cheng and Simon Saw-Teong Ang, were both arrested on charges connected to obscuring their ties to the Thousand Talents Program while accepting research grants from NASA. Professors charged with illicit connections to China since 2019 have worked at a slew of top-flight universities and research institutions.

The United States rescinded more than 1000 visas for Chinese graduate students and researchers in September of this year.

As a result of this widespread spying, the United States rescinded more than 1000 visas for Chinese graduate students and researchers in September of this year. Additionally, Chinese enrollment has been dramatically reduced at many top tier universities, partially due to Covid. The goal of the Attorney General’s China Initiative, established in November of 2018, is to “disrupt and deter the wide range of national security threats posed by the PRC.” It is not to unfairly target Chinese Americans or visiting students. The focus is the government of the PRC itself. That’s an initiative that is necessary and timely, but simultaneously, I feel for the many innocent students whose lives have been impacted.

So where is the line between securing American intellectual property and completely obliterating traditional academic cooperation? And given China’s policy of enlisting the whole of society to spy, is cooperation even possible anymore?

Leaving Moscow

In 1981, locked inside the little glass room in the Moscow airport, the women continued yelling that I was a spy. I wasn’t. I was just a dumb 16-year-old kid. My flight left without me. I was hungry. Different officers came to ask me questions about what I had spent my money on, who I had talked to, where I had traveled. They seemed especially stuck on the fact that I had brought $2,000 into the Soviet Union, but was leaving with only one cheap souvenir. “Where are your receipts?” my inquisitors barked. “We told you to keep a list!”

For hours, they asked the same questions over and over. How did you get here? What did you do with the money? When I pointed out that they wouldn’t have known that I came in with money unless they had a record somewhere of me entering the Soviet Union and declaring what I was bringing with me, the commanding officer flew into a rage. “Zavalee!” she yelled. Shut up!

In a break between bouts of being screamed at, I had a sudden inspiration. “Listen,” I said to the leader. “I only eat kosher. And there is no kosher food in the Soviet Union. I had to buy fresh food.” I hesitated. I somehow had to suggest I had purchased black market fruits and vegetables without getting myself into further hot water. “Apples.” She nodded. “Potatoes.” Again, she nodded. But then I pulled out my biggest gun. “Eggs.”

There was a shortage at that time. A single egg cost the equivalent of $7. The guard sucked in her breath. “Yes,” she said heavily, as if I had said some foundational truth, and then she turned around and threw everything back into my suitcase – my wrinkled clothing, my prayer book, the little matryoshka I’d bought in the empty department store, the shredded lining of my bag.

“Go,” she said in Russian. “Go home.”

Want To Read More?

(I’m not going to include my whole list here, but just the ones that I especially loved, ranked according to the level of commitment and interest each requires)


“Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA,” by Amaryllis Fox, Vintage, 2020

“The Moscow Rules,” by Jonna and Antonio Mendez, PublicAffairs, 2020


“Washington Station,” by Yuri Shvets, Simon and Schuster, 1995

“The Spy and the Traitor,” by Ben MacIntyre, Crown, NY, 2019

“Aquarium,” bny Viktor Suvorov, Hamilton, 1985

“From Russia with Blood: The Kremlin’s Ruthless Assassination Program and Vladimir Putin’s Secret War on the West,” by Heidi Blake, Mulholland, 2019


“Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories and the Hunt for Putin’s Agents,” by Gordon Corera, William Morrow, 2020

“To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence,” by James M. Olson, Georgetown University Press, 2019

“China’s Quest for Foreign Technology: Beyond Espionage,” edited by William C. Hannas and Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Routledge, 2020

“The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB,” by Christopher Andrew, Basic, 1999


“Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer,” by Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil, Naval Institute Press, 2019

“Chinese Espionage Operations and Tactics, Nicholas Eftimiades, Vitruvian, 2020 Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers, by Andy Greenberg, Doubleday, 2019

“The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” by Masha Gessen, Riverhead, 2017


Life After Death

(Please feel free to write in and make your own book suggestions on this topic to [email protected])

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